I guess I don’t understand the preoccupation with eye contact in western culture.
In certain Asian cultures, it is customary to bow (which I vastly prefer, as opposed to attempting to yank someone’s wrist out of its socket. But I digress. This is about eye contact).
It is also customary in those same Asian cultures not to make eye contact while bowing heads toward each other. To do so is a sign of disrespect, as though you don’t trust the other person not to pull a fast one on you. Never taking your eyes off of them, especially while greeting them or meeting them for the first time, essentially sends them the message that you’re suspicious of them from the get-go (Texan for “from the start/beginning”).
Not exactly a way to endear oneself to the other person, in that culture. Not a surefire way to start off on the right foot.
Even though I’m from the west, I tend to operate much like those across the Pacific pond.
I’m notoriously averse to eye contact.
The idea that if one does not make eye contact, then they must be lying or otherwise hiding something, is a stubborn myth that won’t die with any dignity; our society just keeps it around and around.
But over 40 years of research has proven that it is indeed a myth. I can lie to someone’s face while looking at them just as easily as I can while looking away (although I don’t lie well in either instance).
And just because I’m looking away doesn’t mean I’m lying or hiding anything.
And I usually do look away.
I find making eye contact with someone incredibly uncomfortable.
It makes me feel naked. I describe it to neurotypical people as the feeling they get when they’re up on a stage, in a room full of people, with all eyes on them. Or perhaps how they feel when they know they’re being videotaped. (This is assuming they’re not the attention-seeking type of extrovert, of course.)
It makes me feel like all eyes are on me – not just yours.
It’s a shy, self-conscious “I’d rather you not look at me” feeling. It feels scrutinizing, potentially judging. Like you’re being graded, evaluated, or sized up.
What goes through the other person’s mind? What kind of information are they getting from my eyes? What can they see? How do they plan to use the information they get?
It makes me feel like they have the advantage. They’re cheating.
I can’t get the same information by looking into their eyes that they can when looking into mine. The balance of power is tilted in their favor. I must have always known that on some instinctual level, because I’ve always shied away from staring into someone’s eyes.
I can’t get to know them like they can me. I feel powerless, almost at their mercy.
I also find it intrusive, and sometimes, even semi-rude. I know they’re not trying to be. I know they’re just following the rules of the social game of the neurotypical world. Rules of which I never received a copy or committed to memory. After all, I didn’t know that we’d be tested on them.
But I am, every day. Someone looking down might be misunderstood to be depressed, so after fielding the unsolicited comments from other people for too many years, I learned to at least look ahead, at eye level, lest anyone intrude on my thoughts. Courtesy would call for leaving someone alone who appeared absorbed in thought, a natural signal of which could be to look down. But nope, some people are flat-out intrusive, and they may not consider the fact that it’s not their place to be Mood Police.
It could be considered to be a semi-kind gesture to reach out to someone who appears to be in a sad place, but the problem with the reality is that those people aren’t necessarily interested in improving someone’s life; it’s not like they’re going to put down what they’re doing and say, “oh, you’re feeling depressed? Here, let me call someone for you.”
So why do some people say these things? I think it’s because they feel uncomfortable if those around them don’t look happy, so they say things like, “smile”, “cheer up”, and so on, in order to feel like they’ve satisfied some social obligation.
Eye contact, however, does not come naturally to me. It’s not something I do when I’m happy-go-lucky.
It might, however, be something I do when I’m preparing to go to verbal war.
Making contact, after all, is what animals (and humans are indeed members of the animal kingdom) do when they’re stalking prey.
I’m not anyone’s prey, and I prefer not to be stalked, TYVM.
Therefore, when someone makes eye contact with me, it makes me feel a sense of being threatened. My subconscious sends my nervous system (probably the amygdala) the signal that there’s a potential threat looming in my periphery (or even in my immediate space). And the alarm bells start going off. My anxiety shoots through the roof.
Of course, my prefrontal cortex tries to calm down the shrieking sirens in my head, because most human beings are not, of course, out to get me. There’s a disconnect between my logical brain and my “lizard brain”, the limbic system that houses the amygdala.
None of this had ever been apparent to me before, however, so as my prefrontal cortex and my amygdala duked it out inside my head, I was only vaguely aware of the discomfort I felt. It registered in my brain as a sort of timid self-consciousness.
When someone looks into my eyes, it feels like I’m being stared at, or even stared down. It makes me feel vulnerable.
I don’t want to feel like I’m on stage, in front of a camera, while my every move passes through the watchful lenses of potential judgment and scrutiny. It doesn’t matter that it’s only one person who’s looking at me; it feels like a thousand.
I don’t want to be intruded upon, my trains of thought derailed, my thoughts broken into, like a home burglar would enter a residence uninvited. I’m not interested in “snapping to” or engaging with strangers around me. If I am interested, I’ll make a move of my own. I’m a big girl.
I don’t want to feel stared down, sized up, or stalked as prey.
I don’t want anyone else to have the upper hand when interacting with me. The other person already has so many upper hands as it is.
I don’t want to feel even more vulnerable than I already do. I don’t want to feel like I’m under evaluation. What I’m doing, if I’m doing it alone without involving anyone else, is my business.
I’m not lying or hiding anything if I don’t stare at someone. My looking away doesn’t carry any hidden meaning or covert message, other than that I don’t want to stare at anyone, nor do I want to feel like they’re staring at me.
The world simply needs to mind its own business more often. It needs to drop the weird assumptions. Nations update and amend their rules from time to time; social society should do the same. 🙂
Unwritten Rules, Expectations, and Faux Pas [My Aspie Life] ~ February 18, 2017
Three Glances ~ December 5, 2016
(Image Credit: Minjae Lee)